Film is unlikely to counter the helmer's reputation as a fest-only director.
If Marc Recha is trying to prove that neither man nor beast can leave instinct completely behind, he’s gone about it in a meaningless way sure to alienate even his fans in “Little Indi.” There’s something almost sadistic about the way he builds up his protag, a teen putting all his dreams on a prize songbird, only to smash them (and his animals) in a spectacularly gratuitous way. While Recha’s much-vaunted feel for landscape is unerring, the storyline doesn’t hold together, with results that are unlikely to counter the helmer’s reputation as a fest-only director.
Seventeen-year-old Arnau (Marc Soto) lives with his older sister, Sole (Eulalia Ramon), in a nondescript working-class district on the outskirts of Barcelona. Their mother’s in the slammer (solitary confinement at the start) and his brother, Sergi (Eduardo Noriega), is a layabout, but Arnau has an escape route from this dead-end life thanks to the songbirds he enters into competitions. Recha presumably wants to make a parallel between the caged mother and the caged birds, though little in either the screenplay or the visuals extends any meaningful comparison.
Though Arnau is no rocket scientist, he’s a pleasant enough character, carefully tending to his avian friends and bringing home a wounded fox he nurses back to health. He looks up to his uncle Ramon (Sergi Lopez), who ushers him into the downmarket world of dog racing, where Arnau picks up a few extra bucks — nowhere near as much as he requires to hire a good lawyer to get Mom out of jail. Sole needs him to deliver rent money to their landlord in the city, but the naive kid ends up getting pickpocketed in a scene that’s clear enough without Recha repeating it from a different angle.
From this disaster, everything else spins out of control as fate pummels Arnau until everything he cares for is gone. Sympathy remains fairly high until about the halfway mark, exactly when the screenplay needs to build on the characters rather than leave everyone, except possibly Sole, in one dimension. It’s hard to know where Recha is going with Arnau (aside from positioning the character as yet another of his primeval innocents), or why he chooses to treat Arnau with such cruelty, unless the obvious point is merely that life is hard if you’re on society’s margins.
Newcomer Soto has charm, but it’s apparent he can’t compensate for what the helmer himself withholds, especially by the end. Recha seems incapable of concentrating, his curious camera seeking out everything from shoes to racetrack cleaners to nameless people scratching themselves, so any narrative force simply goes limp. His greatest skill is in making the landscape a vital part of his screen world, here lensed with her usual superb eye by regular collaborator Helene Louvart.